Garden Delight

I have new neighbors: the birds moved in.

Flowers, butterflies, lush landscapes under shady trees, and vegetable gardens full of organic heirlooms are what we hope for when we put so much of our time and work into creating our little habitats. Today I noticed a delight I don’t always think about: the birds have moved into the yard. This garden has lots of native plants and trees and a little pond, but I was thinking more about pollinators and bees. But it’s mating season in the bird kingdom and looking around with an experienced birder I discovered a world I didn’t really notice before because I was busy looking at plants..

Downy woodpeckerDowny Woodpecker

One sad part of the yard were the cherry trees mostly dead from harsh frosts the last two years. But a couple of weeks ago, this tiny (less than four inches high) little guy started to whittle a nest from a dead part of the tree trunk. It took quite a while for him to make a perfect round 1/8th inch deep hole but now all I see are his little tail feathers as he pecks and then kicks all the sawdust from his nest that is about three inches deep now. He is the hardest worker and whittles industriously from dawn to dusk. His girlfriend is seen flittering in the neighboring trees but he’s doing all the home building.

Chickadees
Long resident in the neighborhood, a mating pair of chickadees has moved into an abandoned bird house hanging in view of the kitchen window. I’m not sure if mating has happened yet…there’s a lot of coming and going by both the male and female. But they are adorable and their classic “chick-a-dee” song is delightful over morning coffee

House Wren

House wrens

Our city lost many trees from climate fluctuations the last couple of winters so a free Spring Cleanup weekend was announced so everyone cut put all the dead trees and branches in the street and the city would pick them up. Town was looking a little scrappy so we were happy about this. The birds weren’t so happy. About twenty little house wrens were living in the mountain of downed limbs that waited for pick up. I guess these trees had been their homes. Several of them decided to quite literally become my house wrens. They have moved into the eaves of my wooden house, delighting me and entertaining my cats (who have to stay indoors in Spring.) Wrens make their nests from sticks and debris so they collect lots of little sticks and tiny piles of dropped or rejected sticks end up on the walkway from time to time. Next year I’ll put a proper wren house there.

Now I see birds everywhere. Doves (non-native noisy ones) congregate in the neighbor’s tall trees. Little broken robin eggs post-hatching are deposited in the lawn. Hummingbirds flitter around the neighbors flowering horse-chestnut tree. A neighbor spotted a bright oriole but I have to figure out how to lure them here. The morning mating calls are beautiful and loud….there’s a lot of mating going on in my neighborhood.Hummingbird

I’m so happy to live in my bird community. Thank you to my native plants, shrubs and trees who help support them. Thanks to the insect pests that I tolerated that now feed the baby birds.

 

Triage Your Tulips

by Sandy SwegelTulip Garden

Late Spring is a busy time in the garden. We’re trying to keep up with weeding and get the tomatoes growing and we often procrastinate the task of dealing with the old foliage of tulips and other spring blooms. A half an hour’s attention now will make next year’s Spring garden even more luscious.

The old adage is that you have to lift and divide tulips and daffodils every three years. Frankly, I rarely get around to doing that. By the time early Fall is here I don’t remember where the tulips are. When I try to dig them they are either gone or I slice right through them so I don’t do anything. My laziness has led to two discoveries: Dividing and replanting isn’t always necessary. If I have a patch that’s looking good, I leave it alone. If the tulip foliage is strong and just not blooming, I’ll do something about that group. If the tulip foliage is weak, it’s not likely to get better. So here’s how to triage your tulips.

Mark your tulips now while you still see them.
Get some plant markers or ice cream sticks and mark right now where the bulbs are, about how many of them and what color they were. You’ll want to be able to find them in the lush foliage next September.

Eliminate stragglers
Every year in Spring there’s some sad foliage from one or two tulips remaining from an old planting that half-heartedly grows but never blooms. I used to think these just needed sun or food or something but now I dig them up in a scientific inquiry to find the problem. I usually find that there are almost no roots on the bulb or they are half rotten. These bulbs will NOT recover. Thank them for their years of beauty, then dig them out and send them to the big compost heap in the sky.

Tulip garden

No lone wolves
Tulips almost always look better in a grouping or en masse. Tulips are not all reliably perennial and sometimes all you have left are single tulips here and there that have survived and even thrived when all their buddies have passed on. You can either mark these for moving in the Fall or I risk digging them now and planting in my nursery bed of plants that have no regular home but I can’t figure out what to do with. Mark them for future transplanting.

Tidy that dying foliage at leaf wilt
Most people say you have to leave the foliage of tulip bulbs on till it completely dies. It certainly doesn’t hurt to do that, but a wise elder gardener told me he found that once the leaves started to wilt, they were no longer reliably photosynthesizing and he could cut them back without hurting future blooms. Another wise gardener says she just keeps giving them a tug until they pull off on their own. If you can’t stand to cut the foliage down, cut it down by half so that growing plants will cover and hide the foliage. Tulip flowers are beautiful. Their foliage often isn’t and shouldn’t get to dominate the garden for the next two months.
Now you’re done with tulips until fall when you can lift and transplant those that need it and fertilize the good performers. And invest in new bulbs every year. We need more of the joyful hope tulips give us each year as winter ebbs.

 

 

 

Photo Credits
http://www.goldcountryphotos.com/tulips/

 

Aphid-Eating Wasps

by Sandy SwegelLadybug eating an aphid

There’s yet another reason not to try to kill off aphids outside, even with “safe” organic treatments like soapy water. If you kill the aphids, the aphid-eating wasps, another of those native beneficial insects, won’t have anything to eat and they’ll leave your garden.

Aphids are eaten by so may beneficial insects that it’s rather amazing that we see any aphids at all. Yet there are so many aphids on our plants sometimes. This week I’m seeing thousands on the new growth of roses. And while my first instinct is to kill the aphids in some way, I have finally learned to just watch them. I know what I am seeing is a mini population explosion of aphids that will usually be followed in a week or so by mini-population explosions of predators that eats aphids. If we try to kill off the aphids which are the bottom of the beneficial insect food chain, then the beneficials will fly away to another garden.

Wasp eating an aphid

I knew about many of the predators of aphids like lady bugs and lacewings, but I learned yesterday that tiny native aphid-eating wasps eat a LOT of aphids. In addition to wasps that just eat the aphids, there are the parasitic wasps that lay their eggs inside the aphids. When the eggs hatch the tiny larvae eat their way out of the aphid. A bit gory, but effective guaranteeing enough food for baby wasps.

So I challenge you to a two-week experiment. Leave the aphids be when they show up and just watch the plants for a few days. See who shows up to dine on your aphids. Some possibilities include wasps, both large and small, hover flies, ladybugs and lacewings. It will be a fascinating discovery of how many small beings live in your garden, there to help you keep everything in balance.

Aphid-eating Wasp
Photo credits
http://www.small-farm-permaculture-and-sustainable-living.com/natural_pest_control_aphids.html
http://forhumanliberation.blogspot.com/2013/06/1088-why-closely-related-species-do-not.html
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/09/060925070245.htm

 

Gardening to Save Your Life

by Sandy SwegelUrban Garden in Caracas

My heart is breaking this week with the stories coming out of Venezuela of severe food shortages and 5000 ordinary people looting food warehouses on Wednesday because they and their families were starving. They are right to be desperate. At the end of April, the government announced it only had a 15-day inventory of food left. The president has suggested people should grow their own food and maybe keep some chickens. That’s not very likely in the ultra-urban capital city of 5.4 million people in Caracas.

Venezuela’s problems are mostly political and socioeconomic, exacerbated by the fact that they import most (65-80% depending on who is counting) of their food. Once an agricultural nation, they shifted most land to the easy money of oil production. Now as oil prices have dropped significantly, there’s no money left to pay to import food.

Truck Bed Garden

Which all led me to some serious questions.

Could I grow enough food to save my life if our groceries shelves went empty?

Do I know enough about growing food that I could teach desperate neighbors to grow their own food in small urban areas?

Assuming I couldn’t purchase seeds or fertilizer, could I really grow a zero import garden?

It is frustrating when there is news of famine and human beings starving in the world. Most of the time it’s political. Increasingly, climate change has brought on severe drought. We have all come to hate the evening news with the latest story of suffering in the world. What can we do?

Growing Food in Hard Times

We can educate ourselves more. We can learn to grow food really well. For me this year, I’m going to focus on learning more about growing high calorie and high protein foods. I’ve grown potatoes and onions a couple of times with mediocre production and figure it’s cheaper to buy those and use my garden for more kale. But a hungry community needs calories and needs protein.

My goals this year are to get better at growing potatoes and dry beans…foods for survival.

What can you learn this year in case one day you had to feed yourself and teach others?

If you need a place to start to learn, this book is a great way to start:

Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times

 

 

Photocredits
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/09/on-urban-farms-a-sense-of-place/26675/

 

 

Weeds Are Our Friends

by Sandy SwegelDock Weed 

Say what? Well Spring weeds ARE my friends. August weeds not so much. But Spring is finally overcoming winter and the big leafy weeds are the proof.

So what’s to love about Spring Weeds? The most important thing is they are an abundant source of food for pollinators. They are also delightfully pretty if you don’t think of them as weeds. I especially love the wild mustards. Invasive in lawns and on bare garden soils, blue mustards’ very tiny blue flowers are everywhere and are an excellent food source for awakening bees. Bees can’t live on dandelions alone you know.

Musk mustard flowers
To a gardener, the best part about spring weeds is WEED TEA and COMPOST.

Weeds, especially the perennial ones like dock and thistle, are an excellent source of nutrients because of their deep tap roots. To capture these nutrients in a usable form, you have to break down the plant tissue. The easiest thing to do is just keep throwing the leaves on the compost pile. This time of year your compost bin has too many “browns” anyway with all the dead winter material. The “greens” of spring coupled with warm weather jump starts your pile.

But if you want to really get all those nutrients available to your plants and soil, you’ll want to make some Weed Tea.

Weed Tea RecipeWeed compost tea

Get a big container . A Rubbermaid garbage can works, or make a small batch in a 5 gallon bucket. Put in all the weeds you can gather. I throw in cut leaves and whole plants. Put this container someway far away from your back door where you can’t smell it!

Here’s what’s going in my bucket:
Yellow dock leaves…these are everywhere.
Pulled or dug thistles.
Comfrey if you have it….these are especially full of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Nettles. Wear gloves.
Crabgrass with clumps of dirt still attached.
Dandelions, salsify, prickly lettuce, even bindweed if it’s up already. Nothing’s going to survive this stew.
Pond scum.

Compost tea

Now fill your container with water at least 12 inches over the plant material. And let stand until it is a disgusting gooey stew of fermented and stinking rotted material. Stir weekly. That smell is anaerobic decomposition. If the weather is warm, this takes maybe 10 days or as long as 4 weeks if it’s cooler. That’s it. You’ve made the best fertilizer you will ever use. Capture the liquid to use to pour directly (I dilute about 1 part weed tea to 4 parts water) on your garden beds. Strain some and put it in a sprayer for foliar feeding. Hold your breath and throw the stinking mess of weed material on your compost pile.

My favorite use of weed tea is to use it as a foliar feed and watch the treated plants green up overnight. This is especially good on tomatoes.  Spring Weeds really are a gardener’s friend!

 

Photo credits

http://wildfoodgirl.com/2013/denver-mustard-mania/

http://www.hightimes.com/read/how-make-phosphate-friendly-garden

 

 

Hummingbird Love

By Sandy SwegelHummingbird Feeder

We humans are crazy in love with hummingbirds. I received so many emails and messages about hummingbirds this week, I have to pass on the things I’m learning.

Spring migration is happening all over the US and there are hundreds of citizen scientists who report their sightings. You can check your area to see if Ruby-throated hummingbirds have arrived. http://www.hummingbirds.net/map.html  This week they are showing up in Canada and at higher elevations. Hummingbirds showed up in Colorado about three weeks ago.

I learned we should keep an eye out for hummingbird nests. They are so tiny. The eggs are the size of jellybeans. The Denver Post newspaper had a whole article on how to recognize the nests so you don’t hurt the eggs when you are doing spring pruning.

Hummingbird eggs
Most hummingbird lovers find one feeder isn’t nearly enough. You should  have more than one feeder so the birds don’t have to fight over it. Or a big feeder with multiple feeding stations. Some people go totally crazy and fill their yard with feeders. Sugar water isn’t the only food hummingbirds rely on in spring. They eat lots of nectar from flowers, pollen, bugs including mosquitoes, and even tree sap. But their metabolism is so high, they need to eat constantly.

The most important thing I learned about hummingbirds this week is that you have to wash out the feeders and change the water every few days. Old sugar-water grows mold which can kill the hummingbirds. Our neighborhood feeders get drained pretty quickly…but it’s still a good idea to rinse the feeder with vinegar water before refilling.Hummingbird feeding young

The funnest hummingbird thing I did this week was watch the You Tube videos on hummingbird babies. Cuteness overload. I have quite a few flowers planted that hummingbirds like, but now I see that I need some feeders outside the window by the breakfast table!

The oddest thing I did for hummingbirds this week is buy a new garden hat. My old hat was a bright orange pink color, and hummingbirds would dive bomb my head thinking I guess that I was a big flower. I have a more subdued lavender hat now…and so far I’m safe.

I recommend highly putting up a few feeders yourself so you can enjoy the show!

 

 

Photo credits

Photo credit: http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/local-news/hummingbirds-have-arrived-in-colorado-check-your-trees-and-shrubs-before-trimming

http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/05/16/animals-nests-weird-animal-questions-science-birds/